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Upset over a school closing, residents of one Kansas town want to cut ties with their district

The Central Plains school board decided earlier this year to close Wilson Junior-Senior High School to cut costs.
USD 112
The Central Plains school board voted to close Wilson Junior-Senior High School to cut costs.

Voters in the Central Plains school district near Great Bend will decide Tuesday whether to dissolve the district. If the measure passes, the Kansas Board of Education would redraw boundaries and assign the district’s territory into neighboring districts.

Kansas residents upset over the closing of their rural high school want to disband their school district and start over, and the move could set a precedent for other towns dealing with enrollment declines.

Voters in the Central Plains district near Great Bend will decide Tuesday whether to dissolve the district. If the measure passes, the Kansas Board of Education would redraw boundaries and assign the district’s territory into neighboring districts.

The proposal surfaced after the Central Plains school board voted to close Wilson High School earlier this year, citing declining enrollment and rising costs.

USD 112 includes portions of five counties and operated junior-senior high schools in both Wilson and Claflin. Last school year, the Wilson school served 73 students in grades 7 through 12, according to state data. The school in Claflin, about 25 miles south, had 140 students.

A vote to disband the district could displace hundreds of students. But Wilson resident Michael Kratky said supporters hope to at least save Wilson’s elementary school, and possibly the high school.

“They’ve already done the damage. … They’ve destroyed our community school,” Kratky said. “People in our community are willing to have a new chance. We feel we have a better opportunity elsewhere.”

Central Plains High School
USD 112
Central Plains High School

Animosity between regions of the district — Wilson to the north and Claflin to the south — dates to 2010, when the Claflin district merged with Wilson and nearby towns to form the Central Plains district.

“Rather than five board members making the decision to close our school, let the whole district decide on disorganization,” Kratky said. “That’s the only way that patrons really have a choice.”

But opponents of the effort say it’s being driven by anger and misinformation. Denise Schmidt, a Claflin teacher and member of the “Save Our District” campaign, said residents would give up local control of their schools if they vote to disband the district.

“The state board can make recommendations, but the local school board understands the needs of your students and decides what works best,” Schmidt said. “We’re going to lose that local control, and the state board will get to decide where students go. So that’s a pretty scary place to be.”

Scott Gordon, head attorney for the Kansas Department of Education, said the Central Plains effort, if successful, would be a first for Kansas.

“We have not found any record” of voters approving the dissolution of a school district, Gordon told state school board members. “This is why we don’t have something set in stone for you.”

If the measure passes, redrawing boundary lines could take several months, he said. The state board could appoint a hearing officer to collect public input and make recommendations, but board members would have the final say in how to divide Central Plains among its 10 neighboring school districts.

The district’s schools — Wilson Elementary, Central Plains Elementary and Central Plains Junior-Senior High School — would be absorbed into other districts or closed. It’s unclear what, if anything, would happen with Wilson Junior-Senior High School, which closed in June.

“If you disorganize a school district, you disorganize the school board, and there’s nobody that owns and operates that building as a school,” Gordon said. “It would be at the discretion of the receiving school district.”

The same goes for more than 100 Central Plains employees, whose contracts would dissolve if the district does. Neighboring districts would not be legally obligated to hire them, Gordon said.

Kansas lawmakers passed a measure last session that gives the Legislature the first right to purchase any school building that a district decides to shut down. The provision, authored by Republican Sen. Molly Baumgardner, was in response to the Central Plains decision but passed too late to apply to Wilson High.

Schmidt, who opposes the push to dissolve the Central Plains district, said Tuesday’s vote could set a dangerous precedent for other Kansas communities faced with closing schools to cut costs.

“The ‘vote yes’ crowd says this is just a simple divorce, but as we all know, divorces are rarely simple,” she said. “This has complex and far-reaching effects that will last not just for our students and our community, but for small districts around the state.”

Suzanne Perez reports on education for KMUW in Wichita and the Kansas News Service. You can follow her on Twitter @SuzPerezICT.

The Kansas News Service is a collaboration of KMUW, KCUR, Kansas Public Radio and High Plains Public Radio focused on health, the social determinants of health and their connection to public policy.

Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished by news media at no cost with proper attribution and a link to ksnewsservice.org.

Suzanne Perez is a longtime journalist covering education and general news for KMUW and the Kansas News Service. Suzanne reviews new books for KMUW and is the co-host with Beth Golay of the Books & Whatnot podcast. Follow her on Twitter @SuzPerezICT.
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